REVIEW: Elaine May devastates in “The Waverly Gallery”
Certain performances are so real, so devastating, that an actor simply seems to disappear into a character to such a degree that calling it “acting” feels false.
At age 86, following a more than 50 year absence from the stage, Elaine May gives a richly haunting performance abundantly worthy of this characterization in the Broadway premiere of Kenneth Lonergan’s 1999 play, “The Waverly Gallery”.
She plays—or rather embodies—Gladys Green, a garrulous but hard-of-hearing 85 year-old operator of a “cute” little art gallery in Greenwich Village in the late 1980s. Over the course of the play, which marks the Broadway debuts of wunderkind director Lila Neugebauer (“The Wolves”, “Mary Page Marlowe”, “Peace for Mary Frances”) and actor Lucas Hedges (“Manchester by the Sea”, “Lady Bird”, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), we witness Gladys descend from wily and energetic to erratic and mumbling, robbed of her memory by some unnamed variety of senile dementia (likely Alzheimer’s disease).
Ms. May’s desperate and dignified portrait of Gladys is searingly painful and simply heartbreaking to observe in Mr. Longergan’s quietly sad play, itself a stunning achievement in dramatizing the indignity of aging and the emotional impact of long-term care on a family unit. I did not understand the ripples of laughter across the auditorium on the night I attended, for this gripping and compassionate look at death was among the most stomach-knot-inducing theatrical experiences I’ve had in recent memory.
Joan Allen (“The Heidi Chronicles”, “Burn This”) co-stars as Gladys’ daughter, Ellen Fine, an Upper West Sider who increasingly shoulders the burden of caring for her mother, testing the limits of her patience and revealing both the circular nature of parent-child caregiving and the tragic way it can color that relationship. When she instructs her son, “[w]hen I get senile, just put a bullet through my head”, we can’t blame her exasperation. Ms. Allen’s exquisite and sensitive performance, overshadowed as it is by Ms. May’s, is the secret weapon of this production.
The play itself is told through the narrated memory of Gladys’ grandson, Daniel Reed (Mr. Hedges), who lives in the apartment next to Gladys and, like his mother, comes to bear the toll of Gladys’ fading health. Mr. Hedges, an Oscar nominee for Mr. Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea”, dazzled in MCC’s “Yen” two seasons ago. In his second New York stage appearance he gives a fine, if underwhelming and understated performance.
Fellow Lonergan acolyte Michael Cera (“Lobby Hero”, “This is Our Youth”, “Arrested Development”) plays Don, a down-on-his-luck artist from Massachusetts who inures himself to Gladys, displaying his work at her gallery while living in the backroom. The part, and a plotline about the gallery’s threatened existence, feels tertiary, and Mr. Cera’s talent underutilized.
Rounding out the cast and this family of “liberal Upper West Side atheistic Jewish intellectuals” is acclaimed director David Cromer (“The Band’s Visit”, “Our Town”) who steps back into his acting roots to play Howard Fine, Ellen’s husband and Daniel’s step-father.
The scene transitions between Gladys’ gallery, Ellen and Howard’s apartment, and Gladys’ apartment—all created with high realism by set designer David Zinn—are unfortunately clunky and disruptive to the flow of the play as a brick wall scrim is lowered to facilitate the swaps on which moody, vintage footage of New York streets is projected (design by Tal Yarden), accompanied by Gabriel Kahane’s brisk, original piano score. Like the bluntness of Mr. Hedges’ narration, these transitions are jarring.
The play, however, is the thing, and Mr. Lonergan is a masterful writer whose ability to artfully reveal the interior experiences of his characters through naturalistic dialogue is impressive. As has come to be expected, Ms. Neugebauer expertly elicits well-shaded and engaging performances from this stellar cast—none more devastating than Ms. May’s as Gladys valiantly struggles to live through her mind and body’s betrayal.
Now a major screenwriter and film director, Mr. Lonergan’s early stage work is experiencing a much-welcomed renaissance on Broadway, following superb revivals of “This is Our Youth” in 2014 and “Lobby Hero” just this past summer (read my review). “The Waverly Gallery” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2000, following its Off-Broadway premiere. This semi-autobiographical play remains an underappreciated but important work of modern American drama, and perhaps Mr. Lonergan’s best.
In the closing moments, Daniel reflects on his grandmother’s painful demise: “I never want to forget what happened to her. I want to remember every detail, because it really happened to her, and it seems like somebody should remember it.” I feel confident that those who see “The Waverly Gallery” will remember it for some time to come.
Bottom Line: Elaine May gives a searingly painful and simply heartbreaking performance as a woman descending into dementia in Kenneth Lonergan’s quietly sad play “The Waverly Gallery”. Marking the Broadway debuts of director Lila Neugebauer and actor Lucas Hedges, this naturalistic memory play is a stunning achievement in dramatizing the indignity of aging and the emotional impact of long-term care on a family unit. Perhaps Mr. Lonergan’s best play, Elaine May’s performance alone is worth the price of admission.
“The Waverly Gallery”
252 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: October 25, 2018
Final Performance: January 27, 2019